New findings reveal that several prominent Missouri persecutors in Daviess County made immense profits off the lands from which early Mormon settlers were driven. New research also suggests the timing of the Extermination Order facilitated this landgrab.

In 2005, Jeffrey N. Walker was working as manager of the Legal and Business Series for the Joseph Smith Papers project when he discovered important documents that shed new light on the 1838 conflict between Mormons and Missourians in Daviess County. Walker shares his findings in the current issue of BYU Studies:

While popular history has painted the persecution as religiously motivated, the facts suggest a more base reason: greed, in its most ugly and insatiable form.

Land laws enacted in 1830 stated that “preemption was the process whereby individuals secured right to purchase public land they had improved and inhabited.” After lands were surveyed, a sale date was announced, and if squatters did not pay for the land they had inhabited by the published deadline, other interested parties could buy the improved land at unimproved prices.

Surveyors struggled to keep up with the workload. “A settler could file an application for his land and then wait months, or sometimes even years, for the surveying process to be completed,” Walker explains.

In the meantime, settlers worked the land and earned money to purchase it. Also, once houses, mills, and crops were in, the land became vastly more valuable – the case with most Mormon property in Daviess County.

Preemption rights – and the delayed payment for claimed lands – directly influenced Mormons’ settlement decisions following the financial collapse in Kirtland, Ohio. Although “Caldwell County was informally designed to accommodate Mormons,” Saints established their main community, Far West, in Caldwell County but also expanded into Daviess County.

This was not because “Caldwell County had filled up to overflowing with Mormons,” as some have claimed. Many Saints from Kirtland had sold their land and possessions to help pay Church debts, so they came to Missouri unprepared to buy property. Many of these Saints settled Daviess County because preemption rights gave them time to farm and earn money before having to pay for the land.

Walker asserts that some Missourians in Daviess County were motivated by financial self-interest in persecuting their Mormon neighbors. Because Mormon settlers had the first right to buy the improved and now-valuable land at the original price, “some Missourians carefully orchestrated the persecution in October and November 1838, specifically to gain control of Mormons’ preemption rights,” he asserts. “They did not reap an unintended windfall” in buying Mormons’ improved land. Rather they orchestrated the deliberate taking” of Mormons’ preemption rights.

Walker provides convincing evidence by describing the timing of events during fall 1838. On October 21, a notice was published announcing November 12 as the sale date for Daviess County lands. “It appears more than a coincidence that A.P. Rockwood reported on October 24, 1838, that the Saints’ mail had stopped coming to Far West,” Walker writes.

The infamous Extermination Order, issued by Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs, came only six days after the sale date for Daviess County lands was published. Soon afterward, on November 1, Far West surrendered to Missouri troops that had besieged the city. Militiamen forcibly prevented anyone from leaving or entering Far West, and they limited communication from the outside.

Additionally, Walker explains, Missouri militia general John B. Clark “commenced the process of systematically arresting key Mormons. By early November, Clark had arrested over fifty Church members. These men were not only ecclesiastical leaders; they also were the most prominent landowners in Daviess County.”

The preliminary hearing to determine whether there was enough evidence to hold the arrested men for further trial took two weeks. “It seems hardly a coincidence that the hearing began on November 12 – the exact day the Daviess County preemption land sales started,” Walker states.

The sales were held for two weeks, “which ran exactly concurrently with the preliminary hearing. Those critical two weeks were Mormons’ final opportunity to exercise their preemption rights.”

Walker discovered that when Mormon’s preemptive rights lapsed, “the key actors in the preceding months’ anti-Mormon activities immediately purchased nearly eighteen thousand acres of Daviess County land.” But not just any land; these Missourians got “the most valuable improved Mormon lands.”

Walker quotes Parley P. Pratt in summarizing the roots of the Missouri conflict: “The anti-Mormons were determined the Mormons should yield and abandon the country. Moreover the land sales were approaching, and it was expedient that they should be driven out before they could establish their rights of pre-emption. In this way, their valuable improvements-the fruit of diligence and enterprise – would pass into the hands of men who would have the pleasure of enjoying without the toil of earning.”

To get the full 55-page article in the current issue of BYU Studies, click here.